Lynda Barry Daily Image Journal
This blog post is an excerpt from my book, The Writer’s Toy Chest.
In her book What It Is Lynda calls the Daily Image Journal “noticing what you notice.” It’s great muscle building for objective observation. For writers, the art of noticing is like singers and musicians practicing scales to remain grounded in the basics of craft.
Lynda asks, “What if your mind was a camera, taking snapshots all day? And all you had to do is write down the first 10 images that come to you?”
At the end of your day, perhaps before you sleep, number a page from 1 to 10.
Close your eyes. Rest quietly. Allow the day’s images to surface.
When done, do not read what you’ve written. Why? The tendency is to critique. That’s not the point. The point is to strengthen “noticing” muscles. The act of list making got you there. Voila. For today, you’re done!
Turn to a fresh page. Number it from 1 to 10. You’re ready for the next day’s journal entry of 10 images.
After a month of journaling, review your lists: notice patterns of observation. You may wish to add your lists to a word hoard you’ve created, play with them as found poems or in collage.
Here’s one of Lynda’s lists from her book What It Is:
Laundry pile in bathroom
Sick cat underneath the porch
Kevin’s painting of monkey
Ramen in microwave
Coral color painted on ears
Too many USA flag 1st class stamps
Gray skein of yarn on floor
Snowcaps on lanterns
Miriam’s comic strips and finding out she’s gone
An entry from my July 2006 image journal:
Small black fan
Pool of condensation on the computer desk
Lynda’s puffed cheeks as she stood on a chair
Leering man at the Exquisite Detailing shop
Bald brown head
Rectangle feedback card
Tiny basket of cabin keys
Bright red hair
Bea bent over in her garden
Deep magenta leaves
In 2006, while poking around the Web site for The Omega Institute for Holistic Health, I spotted this workshop headline: Writing the Unthinkable. I thought, There are so many potential follow-ons to that heading. Intrigued, I kept reading (italics and exclamations are Lynda Barry’s):
“Simple Secrets Revealed at Last!!! Writer/Cartoonist TELLS ALL in ACTION-PACKED Workshop!!! Write STORIES as NATURALLY as You Dream Them!!! Use: Memory!!! Pictures!!! Ordinary Words!!! Laughing!!! NO IDEA IS TOO SMALL!!!! When people try to write stories they tend to drag the stories behind them,” says writer and cartoonist Lynda Barry. “They think the story and question it and try to arrange it into something understandable, which is no fun at all! It makes a person feel exhausted and cranky. The best way to write is to let the image pull you. You should be water-skiing behind it, not dragging it like a barge. Writing should take you for a ride. Focusing first on memory, we embark on a journey into the unexpected. Memories come as uncontrollably as dreams—you may end up remembering things you haven’t thought of since you were a kid. Then we move into fiction. It’s a way of writing that’s freaky, vivid, and a lot of fun. Bring a three-ring binder (no other binder or notebook will do) and at least 200 sheets of lined paper, and a pen.”
I had no clue who Lynda Barry was but that workshop ad prompted me to click “register” and pony up my credit card. I loved the workshop (and Lynda) so much I went back the following summer. I was thrilled to recently learn that in 2019, The MacArthur Foundation awarded Lynda its prestigious genius grant.
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If you want to go beyond the daily image journal of “noticing what you notice” and move into narrative, here’s Lynda’s recipe:
Start with a word such as driveway or basements.
List 10 images that you associate with that word. You are listing 10 from memory vs. what you noticed during your day.
Choose one of those images listed from memory (one that came immediately to mind, that you didn’t have to dig for)
Write it at the top of a clean piece of paper.
Answer these questions in first person in the present tense:
Where are you?
What are you doing?
Why are you there?
How old are you?
Who else is there, or just left or maybe is coming?
What time of day is it?
What’s in front of you?
What’s behind you?
What’s to your left?
What’s to your right?
What’s above you?
What’s below you?
Images are to writers what musical scales are to musicians. It is not a requirement to use the results of the Image Journals and Recipes. What’s significant is building and sustaining cellular memory of image play. This practice can revolutionize how you enter writing. Lynda’s workshop teaser from above bears repeating: “The best way to write is to let the image pull you. You should be water-skiing behind it, not dragging it like a barge. Writing should take you for a ride.”